Dec. 29 2006 12:07 PM

It's been just a few years now since the Postal Service launched its Confirm program that allows mailers to follow their mail as it travels through postal processing. While it is still a new technology, it has now left its infancy and is becoming a part of routine business operations for many progressive mailers. The Postal Service is already looking ahead to new barcodes and new formats that will eventually put a PLANET code on almost every piece of letter or flat-size mail, whether you mean to or not. Now is the time to decide not if you can use this information, but how you will use it.


The PLANET code in its current incarnation looks a lot like the PostNet code we all know and love only the bars have been reversed, long bars for short bars. The barcode represents the type of mailpiece, the specific Confirm service being used, the Confirm subscriber who provided the PLANET code and a mailing identification number chosen by the subscriber. Typically, there is a single PLANET code assigned to all of the pieces in a mailing. As each mailpiece travels through a barcode sorter, the sorter reads the PLANET code and sends information to the subscriber on where that mailpiece is and what is being done to it. Subscribers can then process the data and figure out when and where their mail is being delivered.


For a variety of reasons, not every piece of mail gets scan data returned, but the percentage being scanned has greatly improved in the last year. Today, we often see scan rates well above 95% for letter-size mail and above 70% (and climbing) for flat-size mail. While not quite as good as signature confirmation, it is nearly as good for a lot less expense.


Of course, as you can imagine, a large mailing generates a lot of raw data from the system. It is no small feat to handle all of this raw data. Subscribers to the system typically fall into three categories today: large mail owners who generate enormous quantities of mail who have the resources to process large volumes of raw data; mailing services who · provide the service to their clients; PLANET code resellers such as who provide processing of the data for mailers who don't have the internal resources to do so. Using outside services also helps defray the subscription price of up to $10,000 a year.


The applications for PLANET codes have been limited only by the imagination of mailers. Some of the bigger users we've seen:


  • Retailers who have multiple outlets often use PLANET code tracking to know when their mail is getting in homes around their locations. Using this data, they can staff and stock their stores appropriately based on whether the mail was delivered as expected. They can also adjust their mailing dates to better coordinate in-home delivery with sale dates.


  • Financial companies are tracking their marketing mail to know when to staff inbound call centers and expect other responses. They are also aggressively using inbound mail tracking Origin Confirm to anticipate payment.


  • Nonprofits are always anxious to know what their response is going to be. By tracking their inbound mail, they can know what their response rates will be even before they actually get any responses!


  • Insurers send a lot of critical notices to their customers via the mail. One insurer uses a custom application when they mail cancellation notices, alerting them to re-mail to anyone who did not get a confirmed, scanned notice. They also have a record that shows evidence, if not quite proof, that the customer did receive a cancellation. PLANET code tracking is used to demonstrate due diligence when mailing Explanations of Benefits to their insured as well.


  • Marketers who use direct mail in coordination with other media find great value in knowing when their mail has been delivered. One chain of auto dealers sent out thousands of mailings promoting service specials and made follow-up phone calls afterwards. Through experience, they found they get their best responses if they make the calls five days after the prospects get the mail. For years, they have had to send their mail First Class just so they could reasonably predict when the mail would be delivered so they could time their follow-up calls correctly. Now, using a custom PLANET code application, their call centers get emails every day telling them what ZIP Codes have received their mailpieces, so they can queue them up for follow-up calls. Thanks to this system, they can now use Standard mail instead of First Class, saving them thousands of dollars in postage every month.


    In the past, the conventional wisdom for those working with PLANET codes was that there weren't enough digits available in a PLANET code to allow for the individual numbering of every piece in a mailing. Now, mailers who are able to accommodate a longer 14-digit barcode are finding that it can be affordable to use unique piece numbering. This begins to make PLANET code tracking available to others who couldn't justify it earlier, including small offices such as doctors, dentists and other professionals mailing out invoices and statements. Expect to see a wide range of new users entering the mail tracking arena.


    Of course, the Postal Service is marching forward with new technologies that will impact many aspects of mail even beyond tracking. One important development is the One Code Vision, where the PLANET code and PostNet code will be merged into a single barcode on the mailpiece. The leading contender in new barcode formats at this time is the four-state barcode. Today's PLANET and PostNet barcodes are two-state barcodes, composed of tall bars and short bars. The four-state code is also made up of tall bars and short bars, but the short bars change position and meaning based upon their position. This provides for a lot more digits of information, allowing the PostNet and PLANET code information and more to reside in a single barcode. Best of all, the same technology that prints and reads today's two-state barcodes will be able to print and read the four-state code. Initially, the four-state barcode will be used to simply replace the current PLANET code, possibly as soon as 2005. How long after that until the One Code Vision is rolled out is hard to say, but don't expect a long wait! This all falls under the USPS Intelligent Mail program, and it is a high priority at the U.S. Postal Service.


    In today's mailing environment, there is no reason every piece of mail cannot be tracked easily and affordably. With competition from other technologies and new safety threats, mail tracking offers an excellent means of boosting the value and safety of mail. With mailers and third-party services abounding, you may be surprised at how easy it can be to start tracking your mail today.


    Dave Lewis is the president of ProList, Inc. For more information, please visit or contact Dave a or 888-444-9972.

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